“Looking for chubby bottoms.” “Looking for good-looking, straight-acting guys.” “Looking for discreet friendship and fun.” “Looking for a real and honest man.” “Looking for sex with hairy men.” On a recent Sunday morning, these were the status messages of five of the 131 people in Delhi who were cruising for men on the international gay dating website Guys4men.com, popularly called PlanetRomeo.
Started in Germany in 2002, PlanetRomeo’s impact on the lives of homosexual men in India’s big cities has been more lasting than the Delhi high court verdict in 2009 that legalized gay sex among consenting adults. The website has given people access to other homosexuals without compromising their identity or safety and has 73,000 members in India. “Whether you are in Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore, PlanetRomeo is the place to be at,” says a Mumbai-based investment banker who writes a blog called Johnny Gaydar (Johnnygaydar.blogspot.com) under the name Rajeev. In his late 20s, Rajeev says the Internet has changed the lives of gay people. “I see 18- to 19-year-olds confidently putting up their photos and listing their preferences,” he says. “While growing up in the 1990s, I was confused and ashamed. There was no way to find like-minded people.”
The 1990s was the decade of quiet consolidation of the gay community networks, and the action began in Mumbai. “Those were the years when Indian middle-class gay men started to find spaces where they could feel safe from the harassment by the police and goonda elements, since sodomy was a criminal offence,” says Ashok Row Kavi, co-founder of Bombay Dost, India’s first gay magazine.
Today there are sites and blogs dedicated to discussing Indian male nudity. YouTube has channels devoted to similar videos, with some people posting their own nude and semi-nude videos freely.
Such a long journey: (top) Participants at Delhi’s second gay pride parade in 2009 (Mayank Austen Soofi/Mint); and A. Husain (left) with his boyfriend. (Pradeep gaur/Mint)
The Internet tells only a part of the story in the coming-of-age of gay life in India. In Delhi, the PlanetRomeo website has 9,000 members, followed by Mumbai with 7,000 men. The much smaller city of Lucknow has 600 members, and Gorakhpur, deep in the Hindi heartland, has 46.
A face in these statistics, 27-year-old A. Husain, a PhD student at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), has lived through the changes that have partially transformed the lives of gay men, at least in metropolitan India. A native of Mauritius, he moved to the Capital seven years ago. “I’m not an Indian,” he says, “but I grew up here intellectually and emotionally, and my life’s most important relationship was formed with a Sikh man from Punjab.” Husain chose to study in Delhi because of his Indian boyfriend whom he first met through Yahoo Messenger. It was 2004, the year Facebook was launched. The friends had no access to photo-processing software, so no pictures were exchanged. “I only knew that being a Sikh, he had long hair and a beard and so I moved to India,” says Husain. He joined Delhi University’s Khalsa College as a graduate student. The boyfriend was a medical student in Amritsar, a city 450km north of Delhi. The online interactions were infrequent and depended on the availability of empty terminals in Internet cafés; the lovers wrote letters and chatted on landline phones.
Then, as in the 1990s, the gay social life in cities like Delhi and Mumbai was limited to private parties and cruising in seedier sections of public parks. In Mumbai, the club where men could hang out together was Voodoo pub in Colaba on Saturday nights. In Delhi, it was Tuesday nights at Pegs N Pints (recently renamed Peppers), Chanakyapuri. Every evening a few of Delhi’s gay people—diplomats, designers, doctors, students—gathered in Nehru Park, near the Prime Minister’s bungalow. In Mumbai, the popular cruising area was “The Wall”, the waterfront avenue that runs parallel to the Taj Mahal Hotel. The beaches at Juhu and Chowpatty were also popular with cruisers. In Amritsar, it was as if gay people did not exist.
Every month Husain took the Shatabdi Express to Amritsar to spend a weekend with his boyfriend. They would book a hotel room. Later they would go to the Golden Temple, sit by the holy pond, and listen to Gurbani, the Sikh devotional hymns. By 10pm, the boyfriend had returned home to his parents and Husain spent the night alone in the hotel room. Next morning the boyfriend would return. They would check out of the hotel and before catching the Shatabdi back to Delhi, Husain and his lover dined at Pizza Hut on Lawrence Road.
The sexual love between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, is not a Western import to India. “While researching for our book,” says Saleem Kidwai, the co-author of Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, “we discovered that attraction between two people of the same gender had been discussed for thousands of years in dozens of Indian languages.” But the concept of a discrete identity and lifestyle was initially embraced more in the West. As Kavi says, “The social identity as a homosexual based around same sex desires was an idea from the West and it started crystallizing in India during the 1970s in Mumbai.”
In 1990, Kavi and three of his friends started Bombay Dost as a registered newsletter with no clue on how to distribute it. The first copy was priced at Rs 50 and had 16 pages. The cover had a “vision statement” that called the community to unite. Six hundred copies were printed. The first copies are now rare, with three in the US Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The magazine was sold through gay groups in Mumbai and other bigger cities, and was distributed out of a one-room office on the mezzanine floor of a “businesses centre” run by a Sindhi entrepreneur and his two Catholic secretaries in Bandra West’s Veena Beena shopping centre.
Public acceptance: (clockwise from above, left) A scene from the gay pride event held in Bangalore last year to celebrate the first anniversary of the Delhi high court verdict that decriminalized gay sex (Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP); the verdict being celebrated at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, in 2009 (Mayank Austen Soofi/Mint); the website PlanetRomeo; and the park above Palika Bazar parking in Connaught Place, New Delhi, which teems every evening with gay men (Pradeep Gaur/Mint).
“The magazine’s second issue had the first article on what Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code meant for gay men. It was by criminal lawyer Shrikant Bhat. The first issue had the first article on how HIV was a health hazard for the community,” says Kavi.
In April 1994, the magazine’s three-man editorial board registered a NGO for gay men’s health called The Humsafar Trust in Mumbai. Kavi asked the municipal corporation of Greater Bombay to give him a space in a bazaar to run a helpline and counselling centre for gay men and others. Situated in the suburban Vakola Market, the trust started paying rent to the city’s local government then ruled by the right-wing party Shiv Sena.
In the early 1990s, the HIV epidemic, which was first detected in the US in the 1980s, started raising its head in India, though the first case was reported in 1989 in Mumbai. As in the US, three of the most vulnerable groups were men who had sex with men (MSM), IV (intravenous therapy) users and female sex workers. In 1994, Humsafar Trust convened the first conference of gay men on the campus of Mumbai’s SNDT Women’s University to discuss why gay men in India might be more susceptible to AIDS. It was inaugurated by Subhash Salunkhe, the director general of health services in Maharashtra. Nearly a hundred men attended. During the press conference, many delegates were crying as they recounted their lives in the closet, describing harassment by family, the police and criminal elements.
In 1995-96, Humsafar gathered data, in collaboration with the Pune-based National Institute of Virology, which showed that HIV was already in the community. It caused alarm. The community members started street counselling in Mumbai, giving information on HIV and AIDS and where to go for testing. In 1996, condoms started being distributed in the city’s gay parties.
In the 1970s, Mumbai’s first gay parties took place in the bungalows of globe-trolling rich men in upper-crust neighbourhoods like Malabar Hill, Juhu, Peddar Road and Colaba. Mostly businessmen, corporate executives and expats, these privileged people invited men only from their social set. By the 1980s, the party scene became democratized. “Some of us who had access to the private parties wondered why a few people should have control over who should attend such bashes, especially since poorer gay men were turned away by snooty rich gay guys,” says Kavi, who was then a journalist in Mumbai. The city’s first ticketed gay party—open to anyone who could pay Rs 80—took place in 1984 on the rooftop of Hotel Meghdoot in middle-class Ghatkopar. Since section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalized homosexual sex, there was always a fear of the police arresting the party crowd. The bashes were therefore publicized as “special parties” or “stags”. Sometimes there would be a cake. If the police arrived, it was shown as evidence of an innocent birthday bash.
While at Khalsa College, Husain kept his sexual identity a secret. “People joked about gay men. They still do but it’s less,” he says, sitting at a café in Delhi’s Green Park Market. Husain is dressed in blue skin-tight T-shirt and black body-fit jeans. His eyebrows are threaded and his nails are manicured. He is carrying a large brown handbag. “Now, being gay is more acceptable. It’s almost fashionable. Sometimes we are passed off as frivolous because most of us are so careful about our grooming, unlike straight men.” Husain occasionally went on Tuesday nights to Pegs N Pints, then the only place in Delhi for gay men to dance together. “Off and on, there would be farmhouse parties in south Delhi or Gurgaon,” he says, “but there was no Metro then, the autorickshaw would not go to Gurgaon and cabs were too pricey.”
The Tuesday nights have now lost their exclusivity. After the high court verdict, more restaurants, pubs and clubs in Delhi have started offering gay special nights. Among these are Cibo in Hotel Janpath, Ai in MGF Metropolitan Mall, and Baci in Sundar Nagar. Delhi’s premier cultural spaces, such as India Habitat Centre near Lodhi Garden and Attic in Regal Building, regularly host gay-themed film festivals and book readings. The Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore editions of Time Out magazine have a page devoted to the listings of gay and lesbian events.
In 2007, Husain began attending JNU. “I’m a minority in the campus,” he says. “I live in a hostel and people do talk about me. Why am I so colourfully dressed? Why am I so sissy? But largely people let you be. No one tosses the swear word chhakka at me.”
In 1993, Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy carried a fleeting scene of gay love. In 1999, Penguin India published Yaarana: Gay Writings from South Asia. It carried pieces by playwright Mahesh Dattani, poet R. Raj Rao, including Seth and Kavi. Following literature, in the 2000s, Bollywood made homosexuality playful, albeit with stereotypes, and a part of mainstream films.
In 2001, the NGO Naz Foundation filed a lawsuit in the Delhi high court asking for the legalization of homosexual intercourse between consenting adults. In 2008, New Delhi’s first gay pride parade took place on Tolstoy Marg. Less than a thousand people came. The following year, the second parade had more than 3,000 people. Drag queens danced to dandiya songs; masked homosexuals flaunted their orientation but not their identity; and many others who could be straight, gay or bisexual walked with them. Curious onlookers watched from bikes, autorickshaws, cars and buses. Three days later, at 10.35am on 2 July, in the jam-packed Chamber 1 of Delhi high court, a bench comprising chief justice A.P. Shah and justice S. Muralidhar held that the law making gay sex a criminal offence violated fundamental rights. People present in the court started crying, jumping, and calling their lovers, friends and families. Later that day they gathered at the Jantar Mantar, the popular place for holding demonstrations, to commemorate the “victory”. Husain was also there. “For the first time in my life, I felt free,” he says.
The new liberation hasn’t affected his love life. It’s still in the closet. “Once I took my boyfriend to my home in Mauritius for the holidays and my aunt spotted me combing his hair. My father, a pious Muslim, was told but even now he refuses to believe that I’m gay. Meanwhile, my friend is not out to his parents in Amritsar. His mother calls me his younger brother. It’s sweet of her but it fills me with frustration. I’m his lover.”
The Internet has made it easier to hook up for sex or love, but there are still many with no access to the Net. The cruising areas remain crowded. The era when a man would enter a park, have quick anonymous sex with another man and go back to his family is not over. In Delhi, the park above Palika Bazaar parking teems every evening with gay men, office-goers of all ages, married and unmarried. After 11pm, certain spots in the city—like the bus stand outside Hyatt Hotel, the urinal at gate No. 3 of New Delhi railway station, the Moolchand flyover—come alive with lonely men looking for a few minutes of sexual intimacy with a person of the same sex.
The old prejudices aren’t dead. In July, the Union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad said, “The disease of men having sex with men is unnatural and not good for Indian society.” In February, a news channel in Hyderabad did a homophobic sting operation on men listed in the Hyderbad room of PlanetRomeo and publicly “outed” them.
Next year, Husain intends to complete his thesis in English and cultural studies. His boyfriend has graduated as a doctor. “We might move to the UK,” says Husain. “There’s no future for our relationship in India.”
Meanwhile, the first issue of 2011 of Bombay Dost, published twice a year, will carry a famous Bollywood actor on its cover with his interview on being a gay icon in India.